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Uncertain Climate, Vulnerable Livelihoods

Role of MGNREGS in Risk Reduction among Rural Households in Telangana

Manoj Jatav ( is with the V V Giri National Labour Institute, Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Shreya Chakraborty ( is research fellow at South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), Hyderabad, Telangana.

With limited water resource endowments and a predominantly agrarian base, livelihoods in the semi-arid tropics are particularly vulnerable to climatic uncertainties and frequent droughts. The low levels of development of diversified livelihood options in the non-farm sector and a lack of skill base compel households to seek multiple low-income livelihoods to sustain the household in lean resource years. Among these, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has provided the most significant coping mechanism for most households, particularly the poorest and most backward sections. The scheme may thus be seen as a prominent drought risk reduction policy. However, challenges of implementation arise when the policy manifests on field realities which tend to reduce the effectiveness and weaken its impact.

The authors acknowledge the contribution of the SaciWATERs research team (Mansi Goyal, Arunima Rao, Suchita Jain, Sai Kiran), field staff (Sakrubai, Achyuth, Praveen, Sunanda, and Shruthi), block level government officials and panchayats of the study villages. They wish to thank Sucharita Sen for her guidance and UNICEF for funding the project “Drought Preparedness of Vulnerable Sections in Rural Telangana” of which this article is a part.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is among the core centrally-sponsored schemes (CSSs) listed by the NITI Aayog to achieve the targets of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1, that is, “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Keeping the Ministry of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj nodal, the NITI Aayog, by the year 2030, targets to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere in India, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day (NITI Aayog 2017). In addition, the MGNREGS, with the other core schemes,1 is expected to help reduce the population living under conditions of poverty by at least half, implement central social protection systems and measures, ensure equal rights to various productive assets and capitals and build resilience of vulnerable sections of the population against economic, social, and environmental shocks, and seasonal uncertainties by the year 2030.2 However, these targets seem to be challenging given the prevailing situation at the grass-roots level. In a report by the World Bank on social security nets (SSNs), it is found that India ranked 237 in the world in terms of performance of social protection and labour programme systems with a coverage of 22.61% among the poorest quintile (World Bank Group 2018). However, MGNREGS is the largest public SSN programme with a coverage of 27% of the poorest quintile. Also, India ranked 58 and 42 in the world in terms of annual absolute spending on SSNs per capita ($77 purchasing power parity [PPP]) and annual spending on SSNs as percentage of GDP (1.51%), respectively.

The MGNREGS is an active labour market flagship SSN programme of the Government of India. The act pertaining to the MGNREGS aims to create durable assets and strengthen the livelihood resource base of the rural poor. It mandates at least 100 days of secured wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult member/s volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Although the minimum wages offered under the scheme are lower than the prevailing wage rates in the labour market for similar types of manual work (Vij et al 2017), there has been a greater participation of rural households due to the fact that it provides guaranteed in situ employment opportunities for both men and women particularly during the lean agricultural season when unskilled labour is abundantly available (Jatav and Jajoria 2012; Jatav and Sen 2013). Also, the scheme espouses a pro-poor and women-centric approach in its implementation.

The scheme is most effective in the Semi-Arid Tropics (SAT), where the spatio-seasonal pattern of rainfall has resulted in crop damage on an extensive scale. The SAT regions are characterised by uncertainty and scarcity of rainfall. In India, SAT regions account for 37% of the total geographical area and 60% of the total cultivated land (Rao et al 2005). The challenges of economic deprivation and casualisation of employment are among the few key challenges associated with such a vulnerable environmental situation. A large population from the poor and vulnerable sections are affected by such shocks and stressors. These are essentially low performing areas in terms of farm-based production (Jodha et al 2012; Rao et al 2005). It is also projected that in the forthcoming decade, these regions will remain severely affected by water scarcity and limited provisions for irrigation (Ryan and Spencer 2001). The study region of Telangana is part of the SAT region in India, which is considered to be among the most vulnerable in terms of climate uncertainty and its negative impact on people’s livelihoods.

In this context, Schedule I of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA Act, 2005) prioritises drought-proofing activities which are very much relevant to the SAT regions, for example, water conservation and harvesting, afforestation and tree plantation, irrigation canals, renovation of traditional waterbodies, desilting of tanks and so on. In addition, during the two consecutive years of drought (that is, between 2014–15 and 2015–16), the centre also realised the need to provide further support to the rural households in the affected areas by making a provision of an additional 50 days of employment beyond the stipulated 100 days. However, this decision may turn out to be merely a “token move” (Indian Express 2016).

The MGNREGS becomes exceedingly important for the rural households in SAT regions such as Telangana, particularly during the drought spells when a household’s propensity to be dependent on multiple sources of livelihoods (other than those related to agriculture) increases manifold. In a year a household can earn, at the prevailing minimum wage rate, approximately ₹ 20,000 from the scheme, if all 100 stipulated days of employment is achieved. However, as a matter of fact, the extent of absolute poverty is reflected in the household’s increasing dependence on MGNREGS. Even such a little amount (divided among the household members) comprises a major part of the household’s total income. Noticeably, Telangana is among the better performing states in terms of the participation of rural households under the scheme (Subarrao et al 2013; Vij et al 2017).

In light of the growing agrarian distress and the significance of MGNREGS for enhancing and securing households’ livelihoods, this article attempts to understand the role of MGNREGS in risk reduction by ranking the various livelihood options available for rural households, particularly during the last two consecutive years of drought (2014–16). This article also highlights the emerging issues related to its implementation in Telangana. Finally, it provides some important policy directions which may help implement the scheme more effectively.

Data and Methods

The study is based on a primary survey in the Kamareddy district of Telangana conducted at the household level during November–December 2017, as part of a research study on “Drought Preparedness of Vulnerable Sections in Rural Telangana” funded by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). A quantitative survey of 253 households was conducted through semi-structured questionnaires in the four drought-affected clusters of villages (with a coverage of a total of 13 villages) across Tadwai, Sadasivnagar, Machareddy and Domakonda mandals of Kamareddy district. Group discussions and qualitative interviews with key persons and village-level institutions were conducted to understand the regional contexts as well as issues related to policy implementation. This process was also the basis for the selection of villages in the region for a more detailed household survey based on semi-structured questionnaires. Thereafter, a stratified random sampling of the households was done according to caste and landholding size (including of the landless). The questionnaire was designed so as to capture responses and issues regarding access to and quality of government policies as well as other coping mechanisms of the rural population. The core intent was not only to capture the impact of drought, but to support the policy analysis with an understanding of the ground level issues. The study also uses official data obtained from MGNREGS portal, National Sample Survey (NSS) on Employment and Unemployment Situation (EUS), and India Meteorological Department (IMD) website, and LISS III satellite images to lay out the vulnerability context.

Agrarian Livelihoods and Inequalities

The rural economy in Telangana is predominately agrarian. Data obtained from the household-level survey suggests that more than three-fourths of the total households primarily depend on the agriculture sector for livelihood, despite high vulnerability to drought (Table 1). Dependence on the allied agricultural sectors is almost absent, except for few cases among the backward castes (BCs) and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs–STs) households. Approximately, 60% are cultivator households, while 14.6% are agricultural labourers. The inequality in the livelihood base becomes apparent once it is viewed through a caste lens (Table 2). Among all, the forward castes or other castes (OCs), followed by BC, have better access to productive land and sources of irrigation (mostly deep electric-borewells followed by surface waterbodies called a cheruvu or a kunta), and therefore depend primarily on cultivation. On the other hand, the extent of landlessness is found to be highest (13%) among SC–ST that compels them to depend on either agricultural labour work (26.7%) or other non-farm options. Moreover, caste group-wise inequalities (in terms of access to productive land and irrigation) have a direct bearing on agricultural productivity as well (Table 3). It is reflected in the productivity of major crops in the region. Forward castes are in an advantageous position with higher levels of productivity when compared to the lower castes. It becomes more prominent whenever water-intensive crops requiring irrigation access, such as paddy and sugar cane are considered. The SC–ST are the most disadvantageous groups with relatively poor levels of crop productivity.

In addition, the scope for growth-led diversification in the non-farm sector does not seem promising. Households are dependent on multiple sources for income as the agricultural sector fails to provide a base for growth-led diversification. As per the data, the average number of economic activities pursued by a household for income in a year when computed shows an intensity of 3.8. Such multiplicity of sources of income was found lowest among OCs with an intensity of 3.1 per household. Indeed, distress conditions in rural areas, particularly during the drought, lead to greater diversification or multiplicity of households’ income sources. This happens as they cope with risks by diversifying towards the lower rungs of occupations.

While mostly households depend on agriculture in a normal rainfall year, only few households depend on non-agricultural options for livelihoods such as local non-farm business and labour. The poor SC and some of the BC households, which do not have access to land and irrigation, have a lower base of farm income, and thus are compelled to opt for alternative income generation strategies such as long-term outmigration and daily commuting to the nearby urban areas. Primary survey data reveals that 16.3% of the SC households are primarily dependent on income received in the form of remittances (Table 1). Home-based beedi manufacturing is another subsidiary activity that is pursued by a large proportion of the BC and SC households. It supplements the household income significantly by providing piece rate wages to the beedi workers as well as a financial assistance of ₹ 1,000 to below poverty line (BPL) beedi worker households on account of the “Aasara Pension Scheme” initiated by the Government of Telangana during 2015. Primary household data reveals that 3.6% of the BC households and 2.3% of the SC households were primarily dependent on home-based beedi manufacturing (Table 1).

Drought-induced Agrarian Distress

A mapping exercise was done using LISS III sensor data from Resource Sat II and IRS P6 satellites to understand the agricultural land-use pattern and monitor the changes in Kamareddy district. The agriculture area was classified into two classes, namely crop and fallow for the respective season and year. The water spread area was calculated separately.

Table 4 shows the difference in agricultural land use between a normal rainfall year (2016) and a successive drought year (2015). Change in agricultural land use shows the impact and vulnerability of the region. More than one-third of the agricultural area in the district is resilient to drought as the area under cropping was maintained even during drought situation. Almost 40% of the agricultural area was affected by drought between a good rainfall year and drought year. During a drought year over 58% of the agricultural land was fallow. But, during a normal year only about a quarter of the area was fallow land.

Telangana has hard rock crystalline aquifers that have limited groundwater storage potential and are highly dependent on the annual rainfall recharge. Unlike the major irrigated areas of the country, which are primarily in regions of perennial glacier-fed rivers and alluvial aquifers, Telangana depends on groundwater-based sources for various purposes that are highly dependent on the annual rainfall. The aquifers are further depleted during a drought period when there is no adequate recharge. However, a shift from groundwater to surface water for irrigation does not ensure drought proofing either. Figure 1 (p 14) shows the severity of rainfall scarcity and its impact on decrease in area under surface waterbodies in the study area of Kamareddy district, which is positively correlated with the rainfall deficiency. Consequently, this led to massive damage to crops. Villages in Kamareddy have also experienced abrupt decrease in per acre productivity of almost all major crops grown during the drought period (Table 6). During the normal situation, the cultivator households tend to depend upon maize and paddy crops followed by two dry season crops, cotton and soyabean, and water-intensive sugar cane. During the drought period, however, the maximum withdrawal of cultivators (in number) occurred from paddy farming. The maximum decline in the operated area was also observed for paddy, followed by sugar cane and to some extent cotton.


Maximum damage (or crop failure) was experienced for paddy with a decrease in per acre productivity by more than 10 quintals (Table 5). For maize and sugar cane, it decreased by 7.8 quintals and 2,900 quintals. The impacts of drought have not only been felt by crops requiring more water for irrigation (paddy and sugar cane) but also, albeit to a lesser extent, by the relatively less water-intensive crops (cotton, soyabean, etc). Per acre productivity of soyabean declined from 4.1 quintals during pre-drought period to 1.2 quintals during drought period. Similarly, it decreased by half for cotton. The decline in productivity of these less water-intensive crops is due to the damage caused by uncertain spells of rainfall and high seasonal deviations in the amount of rainfall received.

Livelihood Vulnerability and Coping with Droughts

Changing relative importance of various income sources: Households largely rely upon the agriculture sector for income, followed by other sources such as remittances, pensions, daily commuting, home-based beedi manufacturing, etc. Even then, the relative importance of the available options change during the drought period as the income generation from the former sources is altered. An analysis of the relative ranks given to these sources of income by the interviewed households suggest that the MGNREGS followed by agricultural labour and other social security measures such as the various pension schemes, remain among the most important sources. Hence, they are drivers of the coping mechanisms to reduce the drought risk (Table 6). The MGNREGS has played its role in reducing the risk not only among the SC–STs but the other caste groups as well. All caste groups rank it first as the most important source of income during a drought. As a matter of fact, even the little income generated from the scheme becomes very significant, particularly in a situation where households have lost their income from agriculture and have to depend on a multiplicity of other low-paying income sources.


Declining income from cultivation and other related activities increases the relative importance of livestock as a subsidiary source, particularly among those other than the SC-STs. Evidently, the drought situation obtrudes on the SC-ST households to be more dependent on income generated through short-term migration and non-farm petty businesses within the village. Apart from this, home-based manufacturing (other than beedi making) and self-employment in the non-farm sector are found but as less important options primarily because the demand for home-based manufactured products falls as incomes shrink across households.

Climatic uncertainties: participation under MGNREGS: The importance of MGNREGS for providing the primary source of income for households in drought years has been elucidated. At the macro level of the state and the country, this may be expected to translate into greater demands for employment under the MGNREGS. Assessing how uncertainties of rainfall and water resource availability affect participation in MGNREGS would not only reflect the levels of livelihood distress faced by households, but also illustrate the role of this scheme in drought-proofing livelihoods in an agrarian economy.

Given the limited storage potential of hardrock aquifers in Telangana and with the state receiving less than the normal average rainfall (865 mm) thrice in the last five years (from 2013–17), groundwater recharge has been severely affected. While analysing the rainfall data, the highest level of variations (coefficient of variation) was observed in the winter season followed by post-monsoon and pre-monsoon seasons (Figure 2). However, the absolute deficit of the rainfall amount was observed to be the highest in the south-west monsoon season, particularly during the years 2014 and 2015, a deficit of 198.5 mm and 155.3 mm, respectively.

There is a clear negative relationship between the trend of annual rainfall and participation of rural households in MGNREGS. In response to such precarious conditions, the official portal data shows that the rural households of Telangana have shown a greater participation than the national level in MGNREGS, more noticeably during the second year of successive drought that is, 2015–16 (Figures 3 and 4). The second year of drought was the most acute which affected livelihoods of the rural households severely. The households’ dependence on MGNREGS seemed to have increased during the same period as the average days of employment provided per household was recorded at 55.3 as compared to the national level at 48.9. Also, the proportion of participant households which completed 100 days of employment under the scheme increased significantly from 6.6% in 2014–15 to 16.3% in 2015–16, much higher than the national level, indicating the increasing importance of the MGNREGS among rural households during an extreme drought situation, particularly in the SAT regions (Figure 4). As there was sufficient rainfall during the next year (that is, 2016–17), such dependence on the scheme decreased significantly (at 42.3 days), even less than at the national level (at 46.0 days). The same trend has also been observed in completion of 100 employment days. Moreover, seemingly, in this year the dependence has again increased potentially due to a deficit rainfall.3


Workers in the rural households lack the vocational skills required to equip themselves to bargain for skilled employment in the non-farm sector. During a drought situation, a major section of households that are dependent on farm-based activities for livelihoods, end up engaging themselves in unskilled work offered by MGNREGS. As per the NSS survey on EUS, during 2011–12, approximately 96% of the 5.3 million MGNREGS workers did not have any vocational skills (Table 7). Moreover, skill levels among the workers were estimated to be quite lower among both men and women at approximately 4% when compared to it at the national level (15.6% and 10.8% for men and women, respectively). Such a situation pushes the rural workers into low-paid livelihood options and limits their options for better livelihood for coping with drought-like situations. It is also not only indicative of poor diversification of livelihoods in the rural areas, but also of distress-driven compulsion of households to participate in low paid un-skilled jobs that can merely support the livelihood system in the short run.

Key Challenges

The importance of MGNREGS in providing a coping mechanism during the years of lean agriculture owing to droughts is evident in the analysis thus far. In addition, it also contributes to drought-risk reduction through its primary focus on building drought-proofing structures. However, it is not only the level of participation, but also the qualitative nature of the programme and issues of implementation that further determine its actual ability to provide resilience to climatic and agricultural uncertainty. Narratives from respondents on the field supplemented the primary quantitative data with issues more qualitative in nature that potentially create impediments in the realisation of the goal of building resilience to climate risk.

One of the most significant and frequently cited challenges faced in the field relates to delays in wage payments. In the face of climatic and consequent agricultural uncertainty, most respondents referred to the lack of income as the main vulnerability they perceived, and as a result, they were compelled to depend primarily on MGNREGS for work and income. Given the primacy of MGNREGS for income, delays in wages can affect the ability of households to pay even for basic consumption needs. Rangavva from Sadasivnagar narrated her difficulties: “We were unable to afford vegetables from the market due to delayed MGNREGS wage payments.”

Shyamala, a 22-year-old woman from Machareddy conveyed a similar problem, which was that of the inability of affording to buy vegetables and household items, as a result of delayed wage payment. Also, in the face of delays in payments, the households were forced to depend on formal and informal credit.

Delays in MGNREGS wage payments of more than 15 days were reported by about 47% households and an average of 40 days delay, ranging from a few weeks to over three months have been reported in the field study area (Table 8). Given that the scheme provides the basic source of livelihood to the most economically and socially marginalised sections, such delayed payments can pose as sources of vulnerability, in addition to droughts for these sections.

The issue of wage payment delays has also been taken up at the national level in a Supreme Court PIL (Swaraj Abhiyan v Union of India 2018). The proceedings of the case show that while timely payments have improved at the national level during 2016–17 and 2017–18, from 17% to 43%, the percentage is still very low.4

Besides the issue of wage payment delays, various other challenges were indicated. Calculation of wages in MGNREGS is based on volume of work (physical measurement of structure) or “quantum of output expected” to earn a day’s wage. During drought years when soil moisture content is low and the ground becomes hard, especially in rocky dry areas, tasks like breaking the ground become more laborious. As a result, the volume of work that can be effectively completed reduces, which leads to lower wages for the day. Sai Reddy, 51 years old, from Sadasivnagar stated,

MGNREGS work is manual work (₹ x per cubic metre). The soil gets harder during summer and it gets difficult to work in the dry periods. About five–six persons are required to dig even 1 cubic metre. We hardly make ₹ 30 this way.

During the drought year, while the days of work one could demand was increased to 200, in effect, there was lack of availability of work due to high demand. In more populated villages, there was more demand for work but limited work was taken up relative to the population. Thus, it was more difficult to find MGNREGS work during droughts. In Tadwai mandal of Kamareddy, respondents of one of the study villages voiced the challenge of not getting adequate MGNREGS employment days in the village because of the relatively large and dense population of the village.

We did not get more than 30–35 days of work in the year despite the high demand for work in the drought year. There was a lot of competition for the limited work.

Despite higher demand for work, and greater dependence on the scheme for income, the actual aim of poverty alleviation and risk reduction cannot be realised while gaps between the intent and field level realities exist. These challenges tend to weaken the impact of the policy.

Conclusions and Policy Implications

The MGNREGS has played a very significant role in securing households’ livelihood in SAT regions during the drought period. Participation in the scheme has been encouraging and beneficial during extreme drought situations, particularly for the most vulnerable communities such as SC–ST households. In addition, the relative dependence of these households on other social security measures such as pension also increases significantly during the drought period. Income generated from farm-based activities remains the primary source of support and stability for the household during the normal years of rainfall. However, MGNREGS and other SSNs coupled with other coping mechanisms play a vital role in drought risk reduction, particularly when there is partial or complete failure of the crops and even when the costs of cultivation are not recovered.

On the other hand, the non-farm base of the rural economy is so poor that it cannot generate enough income for the rural households and therefore, in the prevailing conditions, cannot be a viable option for coping with rainfall uncertainty and drought situations. There is a strong need to modify and contextualise the existing structure of the public policies and programmes as per the specific requirements or what is most suitable to the SAT regions. The existence of caste-wise inequalities in the livelihood base, that is, in the distribution of and access to the productive livelihood assets, is a big challenge. There is a long way to go in order to achieve the intended targets under the SDGs, if the prevailing situations remain unchanged. Although, the little amount earned from MGNREGS turns into the main source for the household’s sustenance during the drought period, it can act merely as a coping mechanism to reduce the level of vulnerability among the households for a short period. In addition to this, the issue of delay in wage payments under the scheme, which is a violation of the MGNREGA, has become another challenge for the government, which is to provide timely support to the households during the drought period. The calculation of wages under the scheme as per output poses problems on the field, in dry and rocky SAT regions, especially during drought periods.

The abundance of casual labour, ready to take up hard manual unskilled work in agriculture and non-agricultural sectors, also indicates the existing skill gaps. The workers, especially those who seek employment under the scheme, are mostly unskilled and have low educational endowments. Hence, there is a strong need to promote SAT region-specific skill development and capacity building of the labour force in the region. Skilling the MGNREGS workers will help in shifting them gradually into more remunerative employment, which in turn, will help them in reducing the drought risk.


1 Other four listed schemes are National Urban Livelihood Mission, National Rural Livelihood Mission, National Social Assistance Programme, and National Land Record Management Programme.

2 That is, natural, physical, economic or financial, human, social and political.

3 Enough data not yet released by IMD for the year 2018.

4 At Stage two, that is, from the state level approvals of payment to the final transfer to beneficiaries.


Indian Express (2016): “Centre Increases Number of Work Days under MGNREGA,” 6 January, viewed on 21 October 2017,

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Jatav, M and S Sen (2013): “Drivers of Non-farm Employment in Rural India: Evidences from the 2009–10 NSSO Round,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, Nos 26–27, pp 14–21.

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NITI Aayog (2017): Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Targets, CSS, Interventions, Nodal and Other Ministries, Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, Government of India: New Delhi, viewed on 20 November 2018,

Rao, K P C et al (2005): “Overcoming Poverty in Rural India: Focus on Rainfed Semi-arid Tropics,” International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh, viewed on 20 November 2018, http://oar.icrisatorg/1198/.

Ryan, J G and D C Spencer (2001): Future Challenges and Opportunities for Agricultural R&D in the Semi-arid Tropics, Patancheru, Telangana: International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.

Swaraj Abhiyan v Union of India (2018): Writ Petition (Civil) No 857 of 2015, viewed on 21 November 2018,

Subarrao, K et al (2013): Public Works as a Safety Net: Design, Evidence and Implementation, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, World Bank, Washington, DC.

Vij, S et al (2017): “Women in MGNREGS in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 32, pp 67–73.

World Bank Group (2018): The State of Social Safety Nets 2018, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, World Bank, Washington, DC.

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2019


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